(Double Six; 2010)
By David M. Goldstein | 2 September 2010
Though it was always assumed that the dearly departed Beta Band smoked more than their fair share of leafy greens, former frontman Steven Mason was never exactly what one would call “carefree.” The Beta’s most beloved songs (“Dry the Rain,” “It’s Not Too Beautiful”) always hid a paranoid undercurrent throughout their breezy psych-pop, but said unease became palpable on 2006’s Black Gold, Mason’s first post-Beta Band release under his King Biscuit Time moniker. It’s a bitter, disillusioned breakup album.
Worse was post-release Mason, who became increasingly (and appropriately it would seem) erratic and scary: already known to be suffering from clinical depression, he canceled a slew of UK tour dates and literally vanished for a few weeks, leading many to fear the worst. Thankfully he resurfaced in 2008 with his Black Affair project and Pleasure Pressure Point, a Yello- and Yaz-inspired ’80s electro record that felt like an act of catharsis—in addition to being extremely fun and equally ignored.
Boys Outside is the first Mason solo record in which he’s used his given name. Compared to Pressure Point, it hues far closer to his Beta Band and King Biscuit Time work, comprising a brand of lushly produced, psychedelic pop with well mixed drums. It is, without doubt, instantly recognizable as a Steve Mason project. And while I have no idea as to the intimate details of the man’s personal life, if Black Gold hinted at a bitter breakup, Boys Outside is the couch-bound therapy session four years down the line. Granted, shrouding personal lyrics and general melancholy within deceptively upbeat music has always been Mason’s MO, but here he pushes it to nearly uncomfortable lengths, going as far as directly addressing his unborn children from a failed relationship on the alarmingly personal balladry of “I Let Her In.”
If every song on Boys Outside was that morose, it’d be a considerable slog. But as has been his wont in the past, Mason balances the bloodletting with gallows humor. The finger-snapping groove of “Am I Just A Man” is maybe the catchiest song he’s written in close to a decade, and his smirk is in full effect on a couplet like “And it’s me against the world now more than ever / But my brain says to me that I’m not so clever.” Lead single “Understand My Heart” succeeds in similar fashion, and “The Letter” sounds like a distant cousin to Beta Band track “Wonderful,” both employing the time-honored Mason staple of the sweeping, reverberated chorus. But the sentiment here is bleaker, with “Could it be / That you don’t love me anymore?” replacing “In time I realize / It’s all for you / I do.”
Mason co-produced Boys Outside with British electro-pop maven Richard X (of Annie’s “Chewing Gum” fame), but despite a slightly higher abundance of clicking beats over Mason’s loping croon, there’s no mistaking this for anything other than an album made almost entirely of Steve Mason. Typically heavy subject matter aside, Mason actually seems more content in his skin than he has in some time, and anyone who has previously garnered enjoyment from the Beta Band or King Biscuit Time will unquestionably find something to dig within Boys Outside. Here’s hoping he can keep it together.